February 27, 2012

The Economist Debate: Syria

The escalating bloodbath in Syria has long since reached the point at which the international community must act to protect Syrian civilians and to push for a political transition from a regime which has forfeited its legitimacy to rule. But the focus on military options in the debate about how to respond has been unfortunate.  In fact, no feasible military intervention has any decent prospect of either helping Syrian civilians or hastening the regime's departure. Arming Syrian rebels or moving to establish safe areas and no-fly zones under the current conditions would simply throw gasoline on an already raging fire. Calling for the world to act militarily may sound like the moral thing to do. It is not. 

In a report just released by the Center for a New American Security, I explain the problems with available military options and lay out a diplomatic strategy for accelerating a political transition. The goal of international action cannot simply be to overthrow the Bashar Assad regime, or to weaken an ally of Iran. Nor can military action be taken simply to express moral outrage. Certainly the risky, expensive and dangerous war option is not a default choice which must be taken if no other easy solutions present themselves. The purpose of international action must be to protect Syrian civilians and to push for a political transition.  A military intervention is unlikely to achieve either. 

Few advocates of military intervention have convincingly explained how the provision of weapons or the use of air power would tip the balance of power against the regime, end attacks on civilians, or hasten a political compromise. Syria is not Libya, with clear front lines which can be protected through air power or a cohesive opposition front in control of a significant liberated territory.  The battle does not end the day the first bombs fall, even if advocates of such intervention could declare their mission accomplished. Arming the Free Syrian Army or declaring safe zones will simply ramp up the civil war on a terrain where the well-armed and largely cohesive Syrian military has a decisive advantage. And such moves are more likely to drive frightened Syrians back to the regime than embolden them to join the opposition.

It is wrong to insinuate that the Syrian opposition is made up of al-Qaeda sympathisers or that it bears equal responsibility for the bloodshed. But even advocates of arming the Syrian opposition agree that it must unify its ranks and establish a legitimate political organisation before acting. There are few signs of this happening any time soon. The fragmentation of the Syrian opposition is not simply a problem to be noted in passing en route to shipping them arms—it is a fundamental problem with dire implications for the future of Syria. 

Lastly, it is simply irresponsible to avoid considering what will follow the failure of indirect or limited intervention to end the conflict. With the reputation of America and NATO on the line, deaths and displacement accelerating, and failure not an option, it would only be a matter of time before there were calls for the introduction of ground troops. It is true that "nobody is talking about" such a land invasion—but that is precisely the problem. 

This is not to say that the international community must resign itself to dealing with the Assad regime or accept that dictators do dictatorial things. Put bluntly, by unleashing military force against his own civilians Mr Assad has indeed forfeited his legitimacy to rule.  There are no signs whatsoever that he is capable or willing to lead any sort of political transition other than towards one in which all his opponents are dead. The world should not allow Mr Assad to rejoin international society even if he were capable of putting down the resistance to his regime.  

Rejecting military options does not mean giving up. My report lays out the steps for an enhanced diplomatic effort to isolate and pressure the Assad regime, build international consensus for united action, and shape the conditions for a non-violent political transition. 

First, the already impressive international consensus on Syria should be maintained and extended. The Russian and Chinese veto in the UN Security Council masked the fact that 13 out of 15 states voted in favour of the Arab League's transition plan. A similar resolution passed the General Assembly 137-22. The Arab League has taken unprecedented actions such as suspending Syria's membership, demanding a political transition and sending a flawed but unique monitoring mission. China has signalled a willingness to rethink its veto. The European Union, America, Turkey and others have imposed draconian economic sanctions on Syria which have already had a major impact on the economy. More should be done to shame the Syrian regime and raise the costs of its international isolation—including an effort to refer top regime officials to the International Criminal Court. 

Overthrowing Mr Assad is not enough. To build a better Syria, change must come through this kind of negotiated political process—one in which the top of the Assad regime can play no part, but significant portions of the current ruling coalition must. The key is to convince the significant number of Syrians still supporting the regime to support a political transition. No post-Assad Syria can be stable or legitimate if it does not find a place for the business communities, minorities and others who have stayed with the regime to this point. Many believe the regime's narrative about a foreign conspiracy, and many fear for their future. Much more should be done to break through the information bubble within which they live to document the realities of the regime's atrocities. And even more must be done to reassure these anxious Syrian communities of their place in a new Syria. 

It is far easier and more satisfying to express moral outrage and demand a military intervention than to articulate a patient, prudent diplomatic strategy. But these temptations must be resisted. Military intervention in Syria will only make things worse for the Syrian civilians it is meant to protect, while drawing the West and the region ever deeper into a lengthy civil war with no visible endgame in sight.